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Early failure a key to turning back the clock

Fitness among the elderly is improved by a high-resistance circuit training program with fewer but more demanding repetitions at each station.

There can’t be many regimes where early failure is counted as a success. But, as it turns out, Edith Cowan University’s School of Exercise and Health Sciences has been working on a program where early failure leads more efficiently to the fabled fountain of youth.

“It’s beyond doubt that giving up smoking and developing cardio-vascular fitness through exercise are two of the most important things you can do to live longer and live healthier,” says Associate Professor Anthony Blazevich. “We now know that as we pass middle age we need to add strength training to the fitness training in order to maintain or improve our quality of life.”

Fitness training alone, despite improving cardio-vascular health, does very little to improve muscle and bone quality. “Your heart and your head are certainly healthier,” says Anthony, “but your muscles and bones aren’t.

“Heavy strength training, however, can transform an older person by developing muscle performance equivalent to a 20 to 30 year-old sedentary person. Resistance training will turn back the clock – it’s the closest we’ve ever got to the fountain of youth.

“The problem for anyone is being able to find the time, and maintain the motivation, to do both fitness and heavy strength training. It might take two sessions of each type of training every week to maintain peak wellness in an older person.”

With colleagues from several Spanish university and hospital institutions, Anthony set out to investigate a way to combine fitness and resistance exercises into a single routine that would deliver better health for less effort.

“The standard circuit training program at a well-run gym is designed to build aerobic fitness and body strength through a series of fast-moving exercises, with participants moving from one station to the next without any rest interval,” he says.

“This is successful in raising the heart rate and improving oxygen consumption values, but the traditional circuit method is less successful in building muscle strength and bone density.

“There are a couple of factors at work. First, participants are doing a lot of repetitions of resistance exercises that don’t optimally load muscle and bone. Second, the large number of repetitions tends to tire the whole body, so when they move to the next station they are less able to complete high-resistance or heavy strength training.”

The research team found that when the loads lifted at each station were increased, to the extent that participants could only complete six lifts before failing rather than 12 to 15, they were then able to move on without having developed whole-body tiredness. This allowed them to tackle resistance exercises at the next station at a higher level than if they had become tired from extended repetitions.

Apart from saving time compared with standard heavy strength training, where rest periods between sets are the norm, high-resistance circuit training substantially reduced body fat mass and significantly improved walking economy.

“Both the heavy strength training and the high-resistance circuit training resulted in significant increases in strength and lean body mass, and improved bone mineral density, compared with the control group,” Anthony says. “But only the circuit training yielded substantial reductions in body mass and cardio-vascular adaptations that improved walking efficiency.

“Our research group involved 37 healthy men and women aged 56 to 70 who had never done strength training before, were not very active, and exhibited poor strength and mobility. It just shows that no matter how old you are, or how unfit, you can take on these programs and within 12 weeks start to show remarkable improvements in body strength and fitness.

“This is very important for older people, who are subject to hazards such as falls. An 80-year old person who falls and fractures a hip is five to eight times more likely to die in the six months following the accident than another 80-year old.

“Strength training dramatically reduces the risk of falls. But also, going into hospital with reduced muscle mass and strength has considerable risk as there is further tissue wastage during the recovery period – often to the extent that the patient becomes immobile, which can lead to medical complications.”

Anthony’s team is not yet at the point of claiming that it has found the perfect circuit training regime for older people. “We’d have to test this program against other circuit routines,” he says.

The team’s research has just been published in the journal Experimental Gerontology, in a paper entitled ‘Effects of high-resistance circuit training in an elderly population’.